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The Energy 202: Trump puts former BP oil spill lawyer in charge of environmental law enforcement

with Paulina Firozi


The office in the Department of Justice that sued BP after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill will soon have a new leader. He is one of the very lawyers who helped defend the oil giant in court after that massive accident in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. 

On Thursday, the Senate confirmed Jeffrey Bossert Clark to run the department's Environment and Natural Resources Division. Clark was approved by a narrow 52-to-45 margin, with only Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Claire McCaskill of Missouri joining every Republican present to vote to confirm him.

Clark is the latest in a series of officials who have taken top environmental jobs within the Trump administration after previously working on behalf of the sort of businesses often criticized by environmentalists for pollution. They include former coal- and uranium-mining lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, currently in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency, and another ex-energy lobbyist, David Bernhardt, now the No. 2 official at the Interior Department.

Clark will lead the office in charge of bringing cases against companies and individuals when they break either civil and criminal anti-pollution statues. He worked there as a deputy assistant attorney general during the George W. Bush administration.

But more recently as a partner at the law firm Kirkland & Ellis, Clark sat on the other side of the courtroom as a defense attorney for industry.

After an offshore oil rig explosion in 2010 killed 11 and unleashed more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, Clark defended BP in lawsuits from the federal government and Louisiana parishes.

The cases culminated in 2016 with BP agreeing to pay a total of $20.8 billion for violations of the Clean Water Act and other laws. The agreement was the largest civil penalty any company has ever paid under any U.S. environmental law.

Pointing to that record, Democrats criticized his elevation to be the Trump administration's top environmental attorney after the vote.

"Although Mr. Clark does have experience in the environmental space, his record at both DOJ and in private practice shows him to have strong opposition to critical environmental protections," Delaware Sen. Thomas R. Carper, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement.

His Democratic colleague, Dick Durbin of Illinois, added on Twitter that Clark is "the wrong person for the job."

Before Clark's arrival, the Trump administration already curbed some environmental law enforcement efforts that Republicans considered a form of federal overreach. Earlier this year, for example, the Interior Department limited the application of a century-old law protecting birds. Under the administration's new interpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the law would no longer apply even after catastrophes like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Clark's nomination also drew scrutiny from progressives due to his extreme comments about climate change. For example, Clark once compared President Obama's efforts at the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to a Soviet-style takeover of the U.S. economy. 

"It's more about control, really, than about environmental protection," Clark said while speaking on a panel in 2010.

"Its program of greenhouse-gas regulation," he added, "is ​reminiscent of kind of a Leninistic program from the 1920s to seize control of the commanding heights of the economy.”

Clark seemed to know better than to repeat that rhetoric during his nomination hearing last year. Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee pressed Clark for his views on climate change, but he offered little.

"When he was asked about that, he just vacillated," said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond. "For that kind of position, it is important."

Clark did, however, say he stood by a comment in which he called climate science "contestable."

“I stand by it because there are clearly scientists and private entities who disagree," he said. 

The vast majority of scientists who study Earth's climate agree that human activity is warming the globe. Just this week, a panel of international climate scientists issued a report saying that an “unprecedented” cut in carbon emissions is needed over the next decade to keep the planet from going 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, past preindustrial levels.


— Why hurricanes are rapidly exploding in strength: When it crash landed into the Florida Panhandle, Hurricane Michael was one of the top four most powerful hurricanes to hit the nation. But what may be even more memorable about the storm system is “how rapidly it became a near-Category 5 storm, perfectly timed for a sneak attack,” The Post’s Chris Mooney reports. Tuesday morning, Floridians knew a storm was coming, but not its strength. As of 5 a.m., it was a Category 1 hurricane. A day later, it was up to 140 mph winds and a Category 4 storm with rapidly dropping pressure that would eventually peak as a borderline Category 5 storm.

That sudden strengthening keeps popping up, with Harvey, and Irma, and Maria, and Florence and now Michael. “Climate scientists have begun to focus on hurricane rapid intensification as an increasingly prevalent feature in the world we’re entering,” Mooney writes. “Simply put, with warmer seas, storms ought to be able to pull this off more often.”

Drone footage from Oct. 11 shows the damage left by Hurricane Michael in Panama City, Fla. (Video: The Washington Post)

— Florida’s Panhandle coast was essentially obliterated by Michael, with the tiny town of Mexico Beach, Fla. has been almost destroyed. “Aerial footage showed much of the seaside enclave reduced to kindling, trees sheared off just above the ground, tangles of power lines strewn in the streets and cars and boats piled up like rubbish,” The Post’s Luz Lazo, Mark Berman, Emily Wax-Thibodeaux and Kevin Sullivan report. “Entire blocks seemed essentially empty, with houses and everything else that had been on them smashed by storm surge and wind and presumably washed out to sea.” “This is not stuff that you just put back together overnight,” said FEMA chief William “Brock” Long.

More Michael-related news:

  • On the ground: Authorities say at least 11 people have died as a result of the storm, and they’re worried that number will rise. Trump approved a disaster declaration in Georgia, after approving the request in Florida, The Post reports. In its final pass through, Michael brought a deluge to the Mid-Atlantic, as flash-flood watches were posted “over a huge area that includes much of North Carolina, the southeastern half of Virginia, southern and eastern Maryland, and the entire Delmarva Peninsula,” The Post’s Jason Samenow reports.
  • In the dark: The storm left 1.2 million people in the dark across Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia, the Washington Examiner reports, citing the Edison Electric Institute, the leading trade group for the investor-owned utility industry. The group’s president Tom Kuhn said most outages were concentrated in Florida and in North Carolina.
  • “I know someone will help us”: The Post’s Robert Samuels writes of Teresa Stevenson, director of the St. Francis Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, who is calling on her community to help save her animals that are sick and trapped in the aftermath of the storm, and after downed trees damaged some of the animal’s cages.
  • At the Capitol: Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement that FEMA “has sufficient funds for immediate disaster response thanks to prior action from Congress” and that lawmakers don’t need to pass an additional disaster relief package following Michael, The Hill reports. And just outside Washington, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) declared a state of emergency on Thursday, warning residents of the “possibility of flash floods, tropical storm force winds, tornadoes and power outages.”

— Trump signs ocean-garbage bill: While the president pointedly isn't doing much to address a form of pollution we can't see (namely, greenhouse gases), his administration is beginning to tackle another, more conspicuous one. At a White House ceremony Thursday, Trump signed a bipartisan bill promoting domestic and international efforts to clean up plastic bottles and other marine debris. In the process, Trump called out other countries dumping garbage into "our beautiful oceans." He added, "That includes China, that includes Japan, that includes many, many countries."

Rapper Kanye West visited President Trump in the Oval Office on Oct. 11 to discuss policing, mental health and manufacturing. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)

— Meet the "iPlane": A little while later in the Oval Office, rapper Kanye West met with the president. During a bewildering rant about social issues and endorsement deals, the musician told Trump that Apple, which makes smartphones and not airplanes, should nevertheless build the next Air Force One.

"This right here is the iPlane 1. It's a hydrogen-powered airplane. And this is what our president should be flying in. Look at this," West said while holding up a picture on his own iPhone.


— Blame assigned in Massachusetts gas explosion: Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board say the deadly gas explosions in Massachusetts in September were a result of faulty work orders given to work crews. Columbia Gas “failed to instruct the workers to deactivate pressure sensors when taking an old cast-iron gas main out of service,” USA Today reports. “When those sensors detected a drop in gas pressure in the decommissioned main on Sept. 13, the system automatically increased the pressure in the new, plastic gas main. Within minutes, houses across Lawrence, Andover and North Andover began to explode from a buildup of natural gas.”

— California power move: The state's utility regulator just voted to charge more to customers who opt out of big utilities in favor of “community choice aggregators,” which are programs run instead by local governments, Bloomberg News reports. “PG&E Corp. and the state’s other big utilities say the revision is needed to protect against rising costs as their customer base shrinks,” per the report. Meanwhile, advocates say the change will lead to “onerous” rate increases for customers.



  • Environmental and Energy Study Institute and the Business Council for Sustainable Energy hold a briefingon climate action efforts.
  • Securing America’s Future Energy holds a briefing on “The Importance of Fuel Economy Rules for America’s Energy Security."

— These are 10 of the most mind-boggling visuals from Michael, as compiled by Matthew Cappucci, including the below video of the view of a U.S. Air Force Hurricane Hunter flying into the eye of the storm.